Surviving with a high-needs baby

My sister gave birth to her 4th child in January.  Last Sunday after church as we chatted, I got to snuggle him in all his baby yumminess.  She told me that he is the first child she’s had who would actually sleep in a crib at this age.  In fact, he seems to like being laid down to sleep.

We laughed over how different he is from her first child, for whom they just about wore holes in the carpet on the stairs.  Because– yes—for several weeks, only stair-climbing would keep their daughter from screaming in the evenings.   They joked about it being their postpartum workout plan, but it was an exceedingly challenging time in their life. Their daughter is now a delightful 8 year old who doesn’t look or act remotely high-needs.

John and I had two high-needs babies ourselves.  One was our oldest son, who basically spent the first year of his life in one baby carrier or another, riding on either John or me.  Carry him, and he was as cheerful as a baby could get.  Put him down and he screamed.  We opted for the path of peace and carried him.  Some might say we spoiled him.  I don’t think so.  Now age 20, he is such a steadily sunny person that it is hard to believe he was so challenging his first year. (And his second. And his third.)

Our second high needs baby was our first adopted child. He came home at the age of 4 months, and was 9 months old before he slept longer than 1.5 hours at a time.  Moving to a new family undoubtedly played a role in his high need for soothing.  But because I’d experienced such similar issues with our firstborn son, it was easy for me to see that his behavior was probably as much a function of his inborn temperament as his adoption status.  He’s now a delightful 13 year old whom I enjoy exceedingly.

It’s nice to hear stories of ‘difficult’ babies who eventually became happy kids.   But let’s face it:  when you’re knee-deep in wailing-baby/ bleary-eyed momma misery, it can be hard to imagine x years down the road when life will be easier.  All you’re trying to do is survive until bedtime, at which point you’re fantasizing about 3 or 4 hours of unbroken sleep.

So what’s an exhausted mom of a needy little one to do?


First of all I think it is helpful to operate from the assumption that a tiny baby who is crying is expressing a need.  Choosing to view crying as communication makes it easier to continue to respond in a charitable way.  Not easy.  Easier.  Which is way better than what happens to your attitude  if you start viewing your infant as a lil stinker who is trying to suck all the joy out of your life.  Not that I would ever let my mind go there at 3AM.  (Ha.)


Be willing to try lots of different things with your baby.  Turn on a fan for white noise.  Bounce him while sitting on an fitness ball.  Swaddle him snug.  Set his car seat near the washing machine.  And of course carry, carry, carry your little sweetheart.  If he happens to hate that cool baby carrier the first time, try it again in a week or two.  It might not strike out forever.  And if you’d like to try a different kind of carrier, borrow it from a friend at first to save some cash.


Make yourself lie down and rest at least 30 minutes each day.  Don’t stress about whether you’ll be able to go to sleep.  Even lying down with your eyes closed is restorative to your body.  And if you also have a toddler, remember THIS is why God invented Sesame Street.  Really.  Lock your doors so your toddler won’t greet the mailman while you’re resting, turn on the TV, and go lie down.  Let your infant sleep on your chest if that’s where he sleeps best.


When in the midst of parenting a demanding infant, the worst moments come when you feel like you’re stuck someplace with no escape.  You fear you won’t handle this properly and you’ll mess your baby up and doom yourself to no sleep forever.   The desperate fear of an endless loop can really warp your head.  Listen to your thought life.  When you catch yourself fearing forever, speak truth instead.  How’s this very moment?  OK?  Can you do this for one minute?  Can you do this for 10 minutes?   Chances are good that when you ask yourself these questions, the answer will be yes, it’s OK.  I can do this right now.  And guess what?   That’s really all you have to do: one minute at a time.  All kids sleep eventually.


When I’ve had a hard day, sweets like chocolate can be a real mood-saver.  But also think about real nourishment.  Strawberries and bananas and cheese sticks and eggs and peanut butter sandwiches are a snap to serve up, and add more than just empty calories to your tummy.


I know you’re tired.  But when you feel like you can’t make it another minute, it may be time to walk out your front door.  Take your baby for a brisk walk around the block.  Call a friend and ask her to meet you at the park, or the zoo, or just to sit on a blanket in your front yard.  No matter how hard things are, time outside with friends is so restorative.


Whenever I hear folks say that their babies slept all night at 6 weeks of age, I fight the urge to interrogate them.  I know a few babies actually do manage an 8 hour-long sleep at 6 weeks of age.  But I suspect that some parents who claim their babies slept perfectly at an early age might be misremembering the facts.  Or maybe they were so grateful to be sleeping 4 or 5 hours straight that it FELT like all night.  And I’ll be the first to admit that when you’ve woken up every hour for a few weeks, even three hours can feel like complete and utter bliss.  It is totally normal for babies to wake some at night for 9-12 months.  But the good thing is that most do improve their sleep habits at least somewhat by the time they’re six months old.  So hang in there during those early weeks, and have faith that you will sleep again someday. (If you’re looking for a good sleep resource, The No-Cry Sleep Solution has an excellent, balanced approach.)
When you do get a few full nights of sleep under your belt, you’ll probably look at your little one, amazed that those precious early months passed by so quickly.

Enjoy the minutes, even the challenging ones.  You can do this.

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Tips For Surviving a Difficult Day



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  1. Your Sesame Street comment really made my smile. With our son we had high ideals about television watching – none of course till he was much older… When he turned out to be a regular 5am waker as a toddler, we succumbed to the lure of Sesame Street, which came on at 6am so allowed us to doze on the sofa next to him after an hour of reading stories. It saved our morning sanity!

  2. My highest need baby actually usually sleeps all night – but her feed pump and medicines keep me up and down all night! She is a slightly different kind of high needs. It can be exhausting, but I honestly miss the fellowship I had in the depths of the night with my littlest ones. But none of mine have been screamers, thankfully!

  3. Thanks so much for the encouragement this morning!!! Our little girlie had a rough night and I needed the encouragement!!! Has that grand baby really not arrived yet??? Hoping, for your daughter’s sake he comes SOON!!

  4. When my best friend’s baby was crying, she would sometimes tell him to “cry like it’s his last chance to cry.” She said it didn’t change the actual situation, but it did help her to say it and it calmed her down.

  5. I love “high needs” as opposed to “difficult.” I do believe that crying is a form of communication and it is our job to make sure that our children learn they can trust us to meet their needs. My son did not sleep through the night until he was 3 yrs old, and it was a tiring time, to say the least. I just always told myself that if sleep was the most difficult challenge we had with this child, then we were going to pretty lucky.

  6. I always threaten to deny this if anyone ever tells my husband, but I really do miss the middle of the night snuggles in the quiet and the dark with my babies. My son slept through the night at 8 1/2 months…my daughter is 2 1/2 and I’m still waiting on her to do so regularly, but she is less and less needy as time goes on and most nights just wants to be recovered and kissed goodnight again now.

  7. Thank you for the encouragement! Our older daughter slept through the night (literally) the very first day she was born. I woke up the next morning terrified that there was something wrong! Your mom was actually our nurse when we had both girls! Our 2 year old has only slept through the night once. She is typically up 2-3 times and ends up in our bed by no later than 4:00am. I am constantly reminding myself that she will be wanting the keys to the car before we know it, and that 4AM snuggles will be something that we long for. 🙂

  8. These are great. I think any first-time parent would benefit from these ideas and the comments. I know I would have!

  9. Thank you Mary, for your encouragement. My son is 5 mos now, and daughter 2 1/2. I still try to take a nap with son on the days that I don’t work. I tell myself “it’s ok, Mary said so! :-)”.
    I’ve learned that co-sleeping doesn’t equal SIDS and makes me a better rested mama. Sleeping through the night is not an expectation anymore. And if you don’t expect it, you can’t be disappointed either.
    I also really love my Moby-style carrier.
    And these days, whenever I cook a casserole, I make two and stick one in the freezer. That and big pots of soup have been life savers.

  10. Great advice!! Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    When our baby was a preemie in the hospital (and when she came home too), we would lay her on our chests to comfort her. Now, as a 2 year old, that is still her favorite place to be when she’s sad or feeling unwell. Just last night, I had her on my chest as she tried to fall asleep with a cold. I think it was soothing for both of us.

    …and a note about sleeping: I think that God gives us extra energy to survive those difficult weeks/months when we ask Him for it. Also, I found that keeping the baby on a semi-rigid schedule helped a lot. 🙂

    P.S. Mary, if I purchase a couple of your cookbooks from Amazon, would you be willing to autograph them for me? (I’d pay postage of course!)

  11. boy, I wish I could have read something this encouraging and practical 24 years ago, Funny, how you forget difficult times like these later, reading this brought it all back to me. Needless to say, I made it , although at the time it sure did seem like the hardest times in my life.

  12. Kim Kauffman says:

    These are great tips. I wish I’d read it 18 months ago when our daughter wouldn’t sleep EVER. The only way she’d be soothed is to be carried upright at all times (she had really bad acid reflux) or to bounce on the cursed fitness ball. I grew to hate that ball 🙂 I’m terrified to have another baby because the first year was. so. hard. But I am seeing how FUN they get the older they are. I love this age now!

  13. My oldest was (and still is) my high needs child. When he was a baby he barely slept and I was exhausted. I started doing my Bible study in the middle of the night while I fed or rocked him. Once he finally started sleeping through the night I found I really missed that quiet, peaceful time with God.

  14. I found this while trying to keep off a total breakdown! Baby girl turned 1 today, and she is the most challenging child I have ever known in my entire life! By contrast, her big brother was the easiest baby on the planet.

    My husband is out of town on business right now, and all extended is out of town for a funeral so I’m doing these 4 nights completely alone with no back-up of any kind. Not easy! Thank you for writing this, and helping me keep on track. 2 more nights to go!

  15. My first did sleep through the night at 5 1/2 weeks. He was pretty reliable, 11 to 6:30 or 7, then back to sleep till 10 or so. He was a great sleeper and now, at 16, he’ll still put himself to bed at 8:30 if he feels tired, or he’ll sleep in. Of course after him I had twins, and learned it wasn’t my stellar parenting skills but his innate personality 😉

  16. Oh, Stacey, I don’t know you, but I wish I could give you a hug! Both sets of grandparents claimed my oldest was the most difficult, fussy baby they’d ever seen! We walked the floor with her every day until she was mobile at nine months. Then from 9 months to 3 years, she was a force of nature! It was like she went on a mission to maim or kill herself every day, and she resisted everything–good things, bad things, things she wanted, things she liked, things she hated, didn’t matter. Just constant resistance. Every day was a nonstop battle. We prayed about it, read books, questioned our parenting, and even questioned whether or not something might be wrong. Fast forward a few years. She’s seven now, and the sweetest child alive. She looks for ways to help me, and she is incredibly compassionate to all those around her. She’s also funny, talented, and brilliant. My sweet old grandparents kept telling me to calm down, that she was just “too smart to be a baby,” and it turns out they were right. Those difficult babies often turn out to be amazingly kind hearted kids, and I’ll bet yours will, too. Hugs to you in this hard season!

  17. Perfect timing on this Mary – thank you so much. Juggling a 2.5 year old and a 5 week old who would like nothing more than to be held 24/7. I needed the reminder that there is nothing wrong with surviving and breaking out that carrier anytime! 🙂

  18. Thanks so much for this blog! I’m a new mom with a fussy 1-month old…who I just got to sleep at 9:30am after trying for 12 hours straight…and after I just drank 2 cups of coffee. Your blog is very inspirational to me right now!

  19. this is definitely true! i am going to link to this. we had our fourth baby 6 months ago and she is HM (high maintenance) in a big way. but we enjoy her soo much! probably because we are doing most of what you suggest. wish i would have known this with my first!

  20. Thank you! Linking back to this from my blog about our high needs baby 🙂


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